A short holiday in the old Laotian capital of Luang Prabang does much to soothe the senses
The first hint of the laid-back lifestyle that permeates Luang Prabang comes on the short ride from the airport into the heart of the former royal capital.
As my tuk-tuk pulls out on to the highway, I put on my sunglasses fully expecting to be assaulted by the dusty roads so common in countries. They prove unnecessary though: here the roads are surprisingly wide and clean, the traffic mainly motorcycles ridden by young women clutching parasols and steering with one hand.
Named after Pha Bang, an 83-centimetre-tall Buddha statue, the city has temples at every corner. Monasteries squat alongside, home to seemingly hundreds of monks both young and old. French colonial buildings with traditional shutters and ornate balconies line the roads, a testament to the French protectorial rule of Luang Prabang from 1893 to 1954.
The French influence is equally evident in Luang Prabang’s cafes where locals and visitors sip on roasted Laotian coffee and nibble on baguettes.
Most major temples are within walking distance of the colonial quarter and the Royal Palace Museum with its Lao-influenced spires juxtaposed with European stucco walls and a grand marble staircase from Italy is the first stop on many a sightseeing itinerary.
The royal paraphernalia on display lends a solemn mood to the exhibition hall but my attention quickly wanders to the series of tiny murals depicting Lao and Buddhist folk tales, which are easy to follow thanks to the translated captions below. Adjacent to the museum building is the newly completed Wat Ho Pha Bang, which houses the Buddhist image for which it is named.
Across the road is Mount Phu Si and while climbing 329 steps is not for the faint-hearted or unfit, the breath-taking view of the Mekong river and the town below make the effort worthwhile. Another attraction at the top of the hill is the 24-metre-high gilded stupa That Chomsi.
The descent is less taxing and I reward myself with a thirst-quenching fruit shake from a roadside stall before heading to Wat Xien Thong, one of the most important temples in Laos and certainly one of the most lavish.
Colourful with a beautiful mosaic on the wall, the black lacquered walls of the temple are adorned with gold leaf and the gilded carved doors add a majestic presence.
One section of the temple is home to the “tree of life” mosaic, which was created with coloured glass during the remodelling of the temple in the 1960s.
On my way back I allow myself to be tempted by a sunset cruise along the Mekong river, a lulling experience that allows me to take in the lush greenery and the calm village life on both banks.
Later that evening I make my way to the night market and am pleasantly surprised at the authenticity. Almost disinterested in the tourists walking by, the local traders have something of a “take it or leave it” approach to doing business, which makes it difficult to negotiate.
I admire the tapestries with their glorious pictures and exquisite Hmong embroidery sewn on the fabric before dining on pho, the rice noodle dish in clear broth that’s as much a favourite here as in Vietnam. Other stalls offer the ubiquitous Southeast Asian desserts of sesame balls and bananas with glutinous rice wrapped in banana leaf alongside huge sausages made with buffalo meat.
The next day, I head to the Kuang Si waterfall 23km away from the city.
There are many ways to get there – a physically demanding two-hour uphill bicycle ride, a motorcycle ride, a boat trip on the Mekong and a rickety 30-minute tuk-tuk ride from the town.
I opt for the latter and drink in the picturesque countryside.
Kuang Si waterfall is actually situated within a jungle park that also houses a sun bear sanctuary. The cascade’s beauty is described in the guidebooks but nothing prepares me for the majestic sight of the turquoise blue water spilling down the cliff.
I travel by boat to the Pak Ou caves at the confluence of the Nam Ou and Mekong rivers and am welcomed to the lower cave by hundreds of Buddha images. Devotees still come to pray at the caves offering flowers and joss sticks to the statues. The upper cave requires a steeper climb and I’m glad for the torch that guides my steps.
The day comes to end with a traditional massage at one of the parlours in the colonial quarter followed by a leisurely snack at one of the French cafes.
Luang Prabang may have been discovered by the tourists but still remains uncrowded and relaxed, the perfect place for a soul-soothing holiday,
Temple visits require proper attire covering the shoulders and the knees. A sarong wrap can be rented at the entrances of the temples.
If you go
HOW TO GET THERE:
Bangkok Airways offers daily flights Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi Airport) and Luang Prabang, while Laos Airlines has flights from both Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Visitors can also take a two-day slow boat trip or a bone-rattling, six-hour trip along the Mekong River from Huay Xai, opposite Chiang Khong in Chiang Rai province to Luang Prabang.
WHERE TO STAY:
Guesthouses and small hotels abound at prices ranging from $10 to $100 per nights. Young travellers might want to check out the Tha Heua Me Guest House.